What religions do terrorists follow

Kill people, not gods

Belief in God and violence are often reflexively associated with one another. That is not knowledge-enhancing.

He thinks it is wrong to speak of “Islamic violence”, Pope Francis recently put on record at a press conference. The brutal murder of a Catholic priest in a church in Normandy was only a few days ago - the two perpetrators had committed themselves to the Islamic State terrorist militia. The head of the Roman Catholic world church obviously wanted to warn against blanket condemnation judgments: In every religion there are "small fundamentalist groups" that are unjust to be identified with the religious community in question as a whole. Anyone who nevertheless speaks of “Islamic violence” must consequently also see “Catholic violence” at work when baptized Catholics commit violent crimes.

The comparison was obviously badly chosen - at least it limps as long as a Catholic violent criminal does not invoke a divine mandate or the like. (This proves that there are also terrorists who kill in the name of the Christian God Lord's Resistance Army, founded in northern Uganda by Joseph Kony.) Nonetheless, the discomfort the pontiff has expressed may provide an opportunity to step back and examine a common pattern of response.

Since early modern times

In our societies, religion and violence are always reflexively brought into connection. William T. Cavanaugh attributes this in his book "The Myth of Religious Violence" to the so-called religious wars of early modern times in Europe. A historical-political "narrative" emerged from this, which was able to link the experiences of violence with the emergence of human rights and tolerance in modern states (normatively successful). According to the American religious scholar, however, this narrative hides the fact that the unleashed military violence at that time followed its own - and political - laws rather than the formation of a religious camp. This is also confirmed by historiographical research: especially since the Thirty Years' War was more of a state-building war than a war of confession,

William Cavanaugh on the "Myth of Religious Violence"

In its virulent form today, the almost automatic association of violence and religion has emerged in the recent past - after the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11th fifteen years ago. As soon as (in our parts of the world) acts of violence of an extreme kind occur - there need be no suicide bombings - the question of an Islamist or jihadist "background" has been raised immediately, even if there are no relevant clues prima vista. What is routine for investigative authorities can lead to general suspicion in the pre-political and political public, which is just as unsuitable for a reasonable judgment as it is for living together in an open society. The corresponding suspicions sometimes tend not only to be directed against a certain religion, but against religion in general.

It is not religions that kill, but people - people who try to legitimize their acts of violence with religion.

In order to break the automatism of the "linking" of religion and violence that has become a matter of course, let us recall a trivial insight into which what Pope Francis (presumably) meant to say: It is not religions that kill, but it are people - people who try to legitimize their acts of violence with religion, which point to supposed divine commandments, for example, in order to empower themselves as executors in a phantasmatic final battle. Once disinhibition has been set in motion, the act of violence it leads to can also become an end in itself, the momentary self-enjoyment of a power that is experienced as absolute. At least that is how recent violence research describes the “last step”.

Dramaturgy of interpretation

If the psyche of the perpetrator comes into focus, the attempts to describe and explain excessive acts of violence generally follow a kind of dramaturgy (as Jan-Philipp Reemtsma indicated in his study on "Trust and Violence"). And religion appears in this dramaturgy, if you will, as Deus ex machina to fit in perfectly. First, in order to understand the terrible, comprehensible motives for acts of violence are sought. If the rational goals and purposes that a gunman would have wanted to achieve cannot be identified, then psychology and medicine come into play: Are there any signs of mental illness or "character disorders"? If there is not enough evidence for this, it can ultimately lead to a mystification, a riddle of the - now seemingly baseless and aimless - act of violence. An archaic abyss opens up in which the words of the tragedy poet Sophocles echo: “There is much that is monster. But nothing is more monstrous than man. "

In the course of this dramaturgy, the rationalist view of things tends to give way to an irrationalist one. If religion is brought into play, both perspectives, the rationalist as well as the irrationalist, become intertwined. Pointing to (a) religion across the board as the originator of violence, on the one hand, ostensibly satisfies the need for explanation: there is something recognizable causal that is made to be understood. At the same time and on the other hand, however, this something called "religion" functions as a black box in which everything possible and impossible can be presumed and in any case the irrational and dangerous must be presumed. - A general suspicion of religion “spares” closer analysis if the mechanism works.

But just: Not religions kill, but people - and they do it for all conceivable reasons and with all possible motives. Religions can be a reservoir for such reasons and motives, but so can political ideologies; And it was such political - especially totalitarian - world views, not religious ones, that made the past century perhaps the bloodiest in human history.


But what do we know about people who kill in the name of a god who "Allah is great!" call and massacre other people and even not spare their own life? What, except that it is mostly men, and mostly young, who are Muslims? The sociologist Diego Gambetta and the political scientist Steffen Hertog have examined the biographical profiles of over four thousand politically radicalized people who have become on record in the Muslim world and in the West in connection with Islamist terrorism.

The scientists paid particular attention to education and career choices. They found an “over-random”, ie statistically significant, correlation: many of the terrorist actors are engineers or students of technical disciplines. Of the more than two hundred people who have directly participated in terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001, the figure was a surprising 45 percent. The obvious assumption, however, that the technology experts for bomb construction were asked, are excluded by Gambetta and Hertog as an explanation. The engineers are apparently less often to be found among the explosives specialists of the terrorist cells.

The trained technicians from the Arab region risk not being needed in economically difficult times. The two researchers therefore advocate a sociological deprivation thesis to explain its radicalization. Whatever the case, the socio-psychological aspects that stand out in this group are more interesting in our context: Character dispositions and attitudes such as pronounced feelings of disgust, aversions to ambivalences and the need for ideological isolation seem to play an important role. In certain simple forms, religion is evidently suitable for satisfying the need of men, who otherwise tend to be religiously disinterested, for cognitive cohesion, purity, unambiguity, order and clear solutions to problems. Detailed knowledge of the Koran is not required for this.

Nihilists and the “franchise” model

Not all jihadists are engineers, especially those from European countries of origin. But even in the radicalization careers of socially marginalized Muslims from the banlieues on the one hand and of young people from middle classes who get into a crisis of meaning, lived religiosity apparently rarely occurs (as other studies also suggest). At best one could speak of a cult of death and killing, of a violent nihilism that ultimately turns against itself and takes others with it into nothing. As the political scientist Herfried Münkler described with a view to the attackers in Paris, Brussels and Nice, a new type of terrorist actor appears who is actually the opposite of the old one: namely, no longer ideologically or psychologically stable. The terrorist militia IS therefore provides unstable young men in Europe who are inclined to end their lives “with an act of significance”, their “label”, nothing more. This “franchise” model not only blurs the boundaries between amok and terror, it also requires no “orthodoxy” or pronounced religious conviction on the part of those who murder on their own but in the name of ISIS.

In order not to be misunderstood: Religions can provide violent offenders with reasons and motives for acts of violence. But religions also serve to deal with and contain violence. In order for a religion to refuse to be appropriated by extremists, of course, its followers have to do something. Because this also applies: It is not religions that bring about peace, but people - people who trust in God.